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Tongues on Fire

A Tribute to the Black Panthers


Directed by David Murray


with The Roots


The Last Poets


members of Living Colour


Doctor L and the visuals of Emory Douglas


Barbican Hall

11 September 2010







A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

The Black Panthers was a militant, “Black Nationalist” civil rights group, active in California during the Sixties and Seventies, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. The radical group sought to fight institutionalised racism in the Police force and gain equality for the black communities of America through whatever means necessary. The Panthers had a weekly publication that outlined their manifestos for political activism and social reform against the tyranny of white oppression. Their inflammatory rhetoric was complemented by the startling illustrations of Emory Douglas, an artist, who became their Minister for Culture. His artwork is the inspiration for tonight's performance.

Black men wearing berets and shades holding rifles slide past, as revolutionary quotes appear: “We will not hesitate to kill or die for our freedom”.  A Pig with a long snout stands on his hind legs, in a police officers uniform; he clutches a pistol in his trotter, which he points at the latched door of a black man's house. Douglas's graphic design is distinct, the bold black outlines of his characters have an instant impact, proudly emphasising the African physiognomy, they grab your attention through their unflinching directness and vivid use of block colours. Pistols and rifles take on a peculiarly satisfying weighty quality as they appear so stylized; the weapons of the revolution are gripped with fierce zeal, ready for confrontation. Douglas combines a cartoon like simplicity with revolutionary purpose, and in doing so his images appear equally appealing to child or Black Panther. This element is important, for his images can be inspiring and enjoyable without even a need to understand their social implications.

Below the sliding and rippling projections of Douglas's illustrations, Tongues on Fire plays a medley of rousing tracks that draw us into the heart of The Black Panther's ideology. Conducted by the legendary jazz musician, David Murray, he brings his saxophone to life through squealing improvisations; at times the instrument sounds like a kettle whistling to boiling point as the music bubbles up, spilling into the audience and immersing us in a piercing sound that conveys the turmoil of the African American struggle against racism and injustice. Red lights enhance the atmosphere of pandemonium as ?uestlove from The Roots taut drumming provides a frenetic cacophony of smashing cymbals and thudding drums. ?uestlove carries a powerful presence as he plays, due to his extraordinary ability and striking appearance - as his huge afro sways in time to the beat, he alternates between a frenzy of intense drum outbursts and hypnotically calm sections with the transcendental technique of a Buddha. Vernon Reid on electric guitar compliments the sound with funky rhythm, dazzling solos and up-tempo Ska licks while Felix Patorius's bass resounds with a heavy rumble. At one point he solos, his fingers picking the thick strings with amazing dexterity. Ray Angry on keyboards plunges us into an eloquent ramble of chords as he pounds the keys.

On vocals we have the pioneers of spoken word and the precursors of Hip–Hop from Harlem, The Last Poets. Alongside Gil-Scott Heron they are the originators of rap music. The delivery of their socially scathing, polemical poems is charged with the same power of an evangelical preacher who claims to perform miracles. Abidun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan live up to Malcom X's dictum “no compromise, no sell out” as  Oywole launches into a poem called “All about the children”. They repeat, phrases and words, such as “Bare-knuckle” in unison, to emphasise their subject matter, through its quantitative effect it imprints the essential element of their message onto your brain. At times the power of the band drowns out their words but their performance is still captivating and incendiary. Black Thought from The Roots balances the old with the new as he raps in his slick Philadelphia accent, delivering polysyllabic verses with effortless precision, knocking through syllables like they were dominoes collapsing one after the other. The Last Poets stand beside him and give a relaxed ease to his concentrated flow as they affably bump into him and nod along with stoic admiration. We sit in the slip stream of his rhyme style in awe, as he waxes lyrical on social issues at large. Corey Glover from the Nineties band The Living Colour provides vocals, harmonising with soulful lyrics that add an extra texture to the richness of the sound.

Tongues on Fire is a merger of influences all united under the iconic illustrations of Emory Douglas. Murray's Jazz saxophone improvisations mingle freely with ?uestlove's Hip-Hop beats, while The Last Poets gravelly voices and free verse poetry respond to Black Thought's tightly rhymed lyrics. This is about recognizing black musical heritage and realizing the political violence, extreme poverty and racial tension that it was conceived in. The Sixties and Seventies was a revolutionary time, where members of the Black Panthers (due to a loophole in Californian law) would loiter in their neighbourhood armed with shotguns to defend themselves from the Police. In this climate, the arts had to be as radical as the politics in order to empower black people and give them the feeling that they could stand up to their oppressors. Douglas constructed an immediately recognizable visual style for the Black Panthers enabling a mythological like status for their group to be achieved. As illustrations they are striking works of graphic design, as political statements, they are evidence of the institutionalized racism within the US government and the police brutality towards the black community, many people endured and many are still victim of today. In the inspirational words of the Panthers themselves: “All Power to the People!”



Barbican Centre
Silk Street
London EC2Y 8DS

Box Office: 020 7638 8891
9am - 8pm Mon - Sat
11am - 8pm Sun

11 September 2010 / 20:00

 Barbican Hall
Tickets: £15/20/25/30








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